More noise than signal


This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site,

A mysterious stranger, Grace (Nicole Kidman) arrives in the tiny town of Dogville on the run from the Mob. Befriending local writer and moral authority Tom Edison (Paul Bettany), he convinces the townsfolk to grant her sanctuary, but like all things there is a price. Grace agrees to do a small amount of work every day for each of the residents as a token of her appreciation.

Soon she’s accepted as part of the happy family of Dogville, listening to Tom Edison Sr (Philip Baker Hall)’s hypochondriac complaints, weeding store owner Ma Ginger (Lauren Bacall)’s gooseberry bushes all the while revealing little of her own life. For Tom, his initial intrigue turns to love, and Grace is happy in her new, simple life. The mood changes subtly after the police visit Dogville for the first time in living memory, putting up a wanted poster for crimes she couldn’t possibly have omitted. Nonetheless, the good folk of Dogville feel that the risk of harbouring her has increased, and the price Grace must pay ought to increase too.

Things quickly spiral out of control. The price paid becomes truly horrific as the true nature of the citizens of Dogville shines through like a rusted nail. The film becomes a potted discourse on humanity’s well-practised habit of exploiting the vulnerable in way ranging from the subtle to the grotesquely obvious. Everyone here is weak in a variety of ways and as far as Dogville is concerned those weaknesses will dominate them without fail.

You would be forgiven for thinking Dogville to be an elaborate confidence trick on the part of director/writer/enfant terrible Lars von Trier. The obvious talking point in his latest effort is the abject lack of set dressing, and of a set generally. The houses of the residents of the small mountainside village of Dogville are little more than chalk outlines. The mountain itself is little more than polystyrene rocks in the corner of an otherwise black room. The abandoned mine merely a few increasingly small support frames.

It’s easy to write it off as horribly pretentious. Essentially it is. For all the plaudits it’s been getting as a some sort of hugely original boundary pushing effort all ol’ Lars has done is film an actor’s workshop running through a play. As long as you can accept that this has far more in common with the stage than it does cinema, the quality of the script and acting ought to make up for the lack of eye candy. Cards on the table, I was convinced it would be a complete waste of my time and everyone involved’s effort but damned if I wasn’t utterly wrong.

If nothing else, it focuses your attentions rather clearly on the acting and the writing, and these are more than up to scratch. Special mentions to Paul Bettany and Stellan Skarsgård who sustain their American accents well over the lengthy course of proceedings which is a vital part of their performance. Not the most important part though, and Bettany in particular shows a remarkably sympathetic performance before sinking into the same mire as the rest of the town, hypocritical and self serving to the last.

After witnessing Kidman’s mildly variable accent in Cold Mountain it’s a relief to hear that she’s a tad more consistent and accomplished here. While Dogville is best described as an ensemble piece her role is central to everything, and Kidman puts in one of her best performances. Crucial too, and no less impressive is the narration of the piece provided by John Hurt, whose dulcet tones provide much of the charm of the work. There’s not a weak link in the cast, and that’s why Dogville can rise above its high concept, artsy fartsy nature and be enjoyable, something so lacking in The Dreamers.

As mentioned before, Dogville isn’t really a film. It’s part stage show, part allegory and part dark fairy tale, a modern day Aesops’ fable. While it revels in a minimalistic other-worldliness of it’s simple set changing only by the occasional light bulb swap, it somehow feels like a complete town. The character of the inhabitants determined the character of the town, and partly through adroit acting and partly through von Trier’s well observed script it comes alive.

It’s far from flawless, and they’re the kind of flaws that are guaranteed to hole the central premise for quite a few people. If you aren’t prepared to completely suspend both disbelief and judgement from the outset you’ll quickly be walking out. There’s a very real air of silliness the first few times a door is mimed open, disembodied hinges squeaking from some ethereal realm. Knocking on thin air produces a very solid thunk. Curiously this kind of thing may have worked better without the magical noise, although given the central premise were splitting hairs.

Should you give it a chance and perhaps even appreciate the vanquished sets, how long you can continue to do so is up for consideration. At a smidgen under three hours, there’s a lot of scope for minds to wander. After all, this doesn’t have the visual majesty of something like Return of the King to keep you occupied. Concern on this point was so much so that von Trier authorised his assistant director to lop out a substantial forty five minutes for the Italian and some other continental markets, so presumably he feels the central premises of the film can be conveyed in that time. Does that make those forty-five minutes filler? Not quite, and there’s certainly something to be said for the slow burn for Bettany’s character in particular.

The length wasn’t of undue concern to me, but it may perhaps be better all round if half an hour was chopped off the mid-section which on a very few occasions drags despite the efforts of all concerned. More worrying is the abject lack of faith this film show in humanity in general. If there’s one thing that’ll be taken away from Dogville it’s that von Trier clearly thinks that humans = scum, apparently without exception.

Despite a strangely uplifting ending despite its events, it’s never in any danger of being a feelgood piece on the positive aspects of human behaviour. It casts a rather bleak shadow over humans, a very real human stain. More troubling is that if you think about it, and you most assuredly will, perhaps von Trier is right. Despite marginally outstaying it’s welcome, Dogville rises above it’s off-putting pretentiousness to provide a film that succeeds in being entertaining (always my prime consideration when deciding the worth of any film) and thought provoking. The experiment could have backfired horribly for von Trier and everyone concerned, but instead they’ve produced a remarkable piece of cinema despite not bothering with cinematic technique, which is remarkable in itself.